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The Backstory on the ‘Book of Negroes’

"Book of Negroes"

“Book of Negroes,” New York, 1783, on loan from The National Archives, United Kingdom.

The items on display in our exhibition galleries at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown and Jamestown Settlement have their own biographies, just like you do.

How and why was this object or document created? What journey did it take before it came to our galleries? Just as we research the people of the past, building biographies of the objects on public display in our galleries is a fascinating part of museum work.

On view now at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown in the “Forgotten Soldier” special exhibition is an important document on loan from The National Archives, United Kingdom. The 1783 “Book of Negroes chronicles the names of thousands of men, women and children who escaped slavery and joined the British lines. The Book’s companion document, “Inspection Roll of Negroes Book No. 1,” is also on display, on loan from the U.S. National Archives.

Both documents were created in 1783, presumably side by side on the docks of New York harbor, with clerks recording the names, ages and descriptions of thousands of African Americans waiting to board ships destined for British settlements such as Nova Scotia. The “American” version of the document made its way to the Continental Congress, where it eventually became part of the National Archives’ “Miscellaneous Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789.” The British version had a longer path to its current home at The National Archives, United Kingdom.

When the last of the British army left New York at the end of 1783, the “Book of Negroes” went with them, forming part of Sir Guy Carleton’s official papers. As the last commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, Carleton’s secretary organized his papers into the official records of the commanders-in-chief during the Revolutionary War. Collectively, the papers became known as the “British Headquarters Papers,” or more simply, the “Carleton Papers.” In 1804, the whole of the papers were gifted to the Royal Institution, a London charity dedicated to the pursuit of scientific knowledge. In 1904 the Historical Manuscripts Commission presented “A Report on American Manuscripts in the Royal Institution of Great Britain,” noting that volume 55 of the collection was a “Book of negroes registered and certified…” The Book, along with the collection of volumes related to the war in North America, remained in the Royal Institution until 1930, when they were purchased by none other than John D. Rockefeller.

Rockefeller deposited the collection at the New York Public Library, but in 1935 gifted the papers to the newly-established Colonial Williamsburg Foundation where they found their next home in the aptly-named Rockefeller Library.

Queen Elizabeth

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is presented with the Lord Carleton Papers, which includes the “Book of Negroes,” during her October 20, 1957, visit to Virginia and Washington, D.C.  Public Domain National Park Service photo. Courtesy of the Eisenhower Presidential Library.

More than 20 years later in October 1957, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness Prince Philip visited the United States to commemorate Virginia’s 350th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. The visit included multiple receptions and gift exchanges. While visiting Williamsburg on October 16, the Queen received replicas of the communion silver used at Bruton Parish Church, and a portrait of Colonel Augustine Warner (an early Virginia colonist and the Queen’s ancestor). The next morning, the royal entourage flew from Newport News to Washington, D.C., aboard President Eisenhower’s plane. Upon their arrival, President Eisenhower presented a short speech which set the tone and solidified the purpose of the royal visit—the special friendship felt by two countries who were once deeply separated by war. The President remarked, “…even more than the pleasure that your visit brings us, we are conscious of its importance, because of its effect on strengthening the ties of friendship that bind our two countries together.”

The Queen’s visit culminated with a special reception on Saturday, October 20.  According to his official appointment book, at 9:47 a.m. the President and Mrs. Eisenhower, along with Mr. Winthrop Rockefeller and Mr. Kenneth Chorley (both of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation), gathered with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip on the South Portico of the White House. There, “on behalf of the American people,” the President presented to Queen Elizabeth II the 107 volumes of the Carleton Papers, the “Book of Negroes” among them. The Queen deposited the volumes in The National Archives, where the collection has remained ever since.

The “Book of Negroes” has had a long journey from its creation on a New York dock in 1783, much like the men, women and children chronicled within its pages who embarked from the same dock on a journey to a new life of freedom.

We’re honored to display this important document, and its companion the “Inspection Roll,” in the “Forgotten Soldier” special exhibition, which is on view through March 22. The special exhibition reunites these two documents for the first time since they were written in 1783.

Katherine Egner Gruber is the special exhibition curator for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

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